Oral Histories

Helen Ostrowski

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

Helen Ostrowski Biography

Helen Ostrowski joined Porter Novelli in 1993 to head the health care group, and has progressed through a variety of positions including general manager of the New York office, head of global practices and key accounts, president of the Americas, and finally, chief executive officer in 2003.  Ostrowski has over 35 years of experience in public relations and has worked closely with CEOs and senior management of companies such as Wyeth, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Gillette.  She is on the Boards of the Council of Public Relations Firms and the Arthur W. Page Society and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, the Counselor’s Academy, the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association and was named an Inside PR All-Star in health care in 1996.  She is a John W. Hill award winner from PRSA-NY and serves on the Board of Trustees of Roger Williams University.


Interviewer:   How did that early exposure at Schering and Cyanamid prepare you for the success you’ve experienced in your career, and particularly working with those various constituencies—the employees, management, shareholders—what happened in those early years to really help you master that?

Ostrowski:   Well, I would say, when I worked at Cyanamid, we had a very senior group of people in the department.  The department was headed up by a former Associated Press guy. Those were the days when a lot of people typically who went into public relations, came from the media side. I would say that we just had a very focal leadership and we had a lot of challenges as a chemical company. We had issues of compliance with government regulations. This was even before the Clean Air and Water Acts in the United States, so there were huge pollution issues and environment issues. We had issues of health and safety on the job for our workers.

One of the things I remember very vividly [is that] one of our units was Dr. Scholl’s—they made shoes and they produced them in Falmouth, Kentucky. This made a huge impression on me. I will never, ever forget this from a number of vantage points. We were working one day and my boss came in and said they’ve decided to shut down the plant in Falmouth Kentucky, so this was essentially in a very poor region of Kentucky. There were no other employers in town. The plant had about 800 people and it was the only plant they had in the United States. The reason they were shutting it down was the shoe imports were killing them from Japan and they really couldn’t afford to be in the business anyway. I was assigned to go down and handle the communication with the local government officials, the union people, and of course, the employees. I will never forget the day that I walked out on the plant floor with the plant manager and all 800 people who had probably worked there their entire lives, and they were told that the plant was going to be shutting down. There were grizzled men on the assembly line who started to cry. One of the things that taught me, was first of all, they had no clue. They had no idea that the business was on the verge and they were so shocked and said can we buy the company back? That reminds you of the need more than ever in changing environments, but today you’ve got to really be able to bring your employees along with how is the business doing; what is your role in the business; how can you help it improve; here’s our strategy; if you have a strategy make sure it’s clear; involve your employee audience. Because when you don’t, that’s the kind of situation you’re facing and it’s just distressing for everybody.

The other thing that taught me, this was not the only instance, but at both Cyanamid and Schering-Plough, if you have a coordinated program to reach out to different constituents, that really is important. I think what that’s taught me is you need to have that dialog beginning much further back, and that has really helped me through a long period of time. Much of that I was able to put into practice when I got on the pharmaceutical side and you needed to work with third party organizations, patient groups, physician groups. Maybe you were going to have a new drug launching in a couple of years and you really wanted to help bring them along as well as the other constituents.

Interviewer:   Speaking of pharmaceutical companies, you spent many years working with these companies and there seems to be a lack of trust in the United States by our citizens in those large corporations. How did it all come about and has that relationship between the industry and the citizens improved at all?

Ostrowski:   Well, my personal view on this is that when pharmaceutical companies first began, they were really propelled by the age of medicine in the 40’s and 50’s and all the scientific or medical discoveries were coming out. The antibiotics, for example, were one of the first new waves of medicine. Many of the people who worked in the industry were very focused on the doctors and the pharmacists for the most part. There were some regulatory bodies at that time that were important and they grew in importance, obviously, over the succeeding years. But what the industry did not do a very good job of was that it didn’t really reach out to other constituents. As the industry grew, they had more scientific discoveries; they became more profitable; they got bigger; their profits became very strong. Wall Street sat up and took notice. Regulators started paying more attention. Once you get larger, you’re sort of a bigger deal. But when Americans in particular, not just Americans but certainly Americans in particular had to start paying more of the costs that were involved and people started looking at the cost of pharmaceuticals. If they had to pay some more of it, or perhaps they couldn’t get it so easily any longer or whatever the issue might be. So there was much more focus being paid.
I think the long and short of it is, as the industry began to change it did not really focus on building strong relationships and having a dialogue and a relationship with some of these newer groups that it never felt it needed to cultivate. It always said, “The patient is not really the person that we deal with. We deal with the doctors and the pharmacists.” Well, they’re the end user[s] and you better have some sort of understanding of where they’re coming from and a relationship. So I think over a long period of time that relationship, to the extent that it ever existed at all, has been very thin, very fragmented. It’s been very difficult because many pharmaceutical companies have become very firmly entrenched.  Also Wall Street has gotten used to, or at least had gotten used to very healthy profits. Only recently have pharmaceutical companies had to actually start laying people off because the business has suffered. So you have kind of the perfect storm for them, under pressure from Wall Street to deliver on profitability, screaming public and regulators about practices, about pricing, about all sorts of issues.

So I have long felt that the industry has needed to take a completely fresh look and stop hiding behind arguments like, “it costs so much money to develop a new drug.” Yes, it does, but there are reasons why that occurs and there are fundamental issues that the industry probably will need to address over the next twenty years or less, I think, we’re going to see some improvement there. It’s not to say that they haven’t made some improvements already. I think they have, but the basic issue of trust is still an issue.

Interviewer:   Right—in the U.S. public—but does this exist in other countries? The circumstances are different in other countries, but it does exist elsewhere?

Ostrowski:   You’ve begun to see trust issues emerging in the U.K. over the past ten years and in other parts of Europe. You have socialized medicine in a lot of countries and that has been a place where people can hide. But there are issues in marketing practices. They’re more heavily regulated in marketing practices, or have been in Europe, for example. You couldn’t do consumer advertising for the longest time on RX drugs. So again, that’s another factor in the United States. We’ve had that for quite some time so that’s another visibility thing and people look at the cost of the drug; they look at the cost of an ad campaign and they [say], “Well if you could cut out some of your marketing expenses, maybe the drug wouldn’t cost so much.”

So I think that as regulations have started to shift in other countries for better, for worse, you’ve seen some of those changes. I will point out [that] Japan has had a very interesting model. There had been a fair amount of trust in the pharmaceutical industry in that country because they have a very different way of managing industries in Japan. The government sort of gets involved to help—not regulate so much—but all the pharmaceutical companies in Japan don’t chase after the same drug for a blockbuster so you spread out the cost of drug development among fewer entities. So you can argue whether they’re innovative or not; that’s kind of a whole separate issue, but they have had a different model. They also have brought in the public a lot more.

I remember hearing a presentation when I was on a panel with a few people, including the head of the pharmaceutical industry in Japan. He related the fact that in Japan, they frequently would bring in patient groups to come view how the drugs get made, meet some of the people who are behind them, and creating a relationship that we never really had in a lot of countries, and particularly the United States. So I think you see variations across the world. The fact of the matter is [that] pharmaceutical[s] [are] a huge business; it’s global. You’ve got issues of pricing across borders. You’ve got importation of medicines. There is really a chance for the industry to look at itself globally in a fresh way, I think.

Interviewer:   Let’s move into a discussion about social marketing.  Porter Novelli was founded in 1972 and credits itself as being the founder of social marketing. Could you tell us about that and share some specific campaigns that you were involved in, that really focus in on the social good?

Ostrowski:   OK. Bill Novelli, who was one of the three founders of Porter-Novelli really is credited, and I think in a large part with being the father or the pioneer of social marketing; he was actually an advertising guy and also had worked in the Peace Corps, along with Jack Porter and Bob Druckenmiller. But they took the principles that they had learned from the advertising business and they applied them into how [we] can use that to create social good. How can you use marketing to change peoples’ behaviors and create a social good? 

One of their first clients actually was the National High Blood Pressure Education Program. At that time, Americans really didn’t even know what the term hypertension was and there were no treatments for it really, but they were starting to emerge from the clinic and it was a terrible problem. People were dying due to heart attack and stroke. So they hired Porter-Novelli to put in place a social marketing program—not just to educate people about what hypertension was—but to change Americans’ behaviors about getting tested, because now [if] you could get tested and understand what it is you’re looking for. So there was a number associated with that, your blood pressure reading. You could track it; there was a treatment for you that you could take that would help lower your high blood pressure. Also involved in that was better eating habits, more exercise, so a lot of different people or groups could get involved in that effort, not just pharmaceutical companies or physician groups, but also groups that were interested in physical education, schools, or whomever it might be. Over the length of that program, I can’t remember now the actual statistics, but a few years ago the government published a statistic on morbidity and mortality from heart attack at least and it was unbelievable in terms of how much it had fallen over that intervening period thanks to a long-term social marketing program, essentially. So that’s a good example of how that’s gotten used.

Many of the social marketing programs, by the way, were for government entities or associations. They had been used a little bit by corporations, but typically they loan themselves better to associations and organizations who typically are going to have a little longer-term view of things, I think, to really sustain it. One of the most famous programs was the Truth campaign, which was for the state of Florida when the state, like many states, received their compensation from tobacco companies’ settlements. That money had to be used to help reduce the incidence of smoking among teenagers. They had wacked away at this problem for a while, and everybody would use the typical arguments with teenagers [like]: “You’re going to die.” Yeah, maybe in twenty years when I’m old; not now. Or they would use “smoking makes you look unattractive.” Well, I don’t think so [because] all the cool kids in school smoke. So none of those were working. But what happened when we were brought into the campaign, we did some more research on teenagers—to really understand what motivated them—and we found [that] they did not trust business, big business. In particular, they felt that tobacco companies were very manipulative. That became the focal point for the campaign. Now this is a good segue way, perhaps, into social networking and social media, and so that campaign was designed by the teenagers, with the help of Porter-Novelli and the advertising agency. They also became the spokespeople and they saw over a two-year period, I think, a reduction of something like forty percent in the incidence of smoking in teenagers.

Back then when they had the campaign, you had to use things like mailing videos to people; you had to actually have a physical town hall meeting. If you were going to have an event, you had to get flyers out. Today, if you could use the social media that we have at our disposal, you can only imagine how much more you could have compressed the timing of that campaign and probably had either the same results in a shorter time or even better results. So it’s a very good example of both I think the application of social marketing, but also how that can carry through and what happens when you start to use social networking among peers, and then you overlay that with the technology [we have] today. If you have that campaign you can just put that technology on top of it and use that.

Interviewer:   OK, great. So we’re almost done. I’ll let you decide. Do you want to talk about which of your accomplishments you’re most proud of or do you want to talk about important issues and enduring truths that you’ve learned in your career?

Ostrowski:   Oh my. I’m going to try to sort of wrap that up together in a way. There are all sorts of enduring truths that I think we can all have, but I’ll go back to what I said at the beginning in my career. When I first started working and I had the benefit of working with people who were willing to give of their time to teach me. They didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t part of their job description, but they really wanted to help [me]. I think that I have always felt that responsibility throughout my life and I have always tried to pass that along—pass that favor along. At any point, I don’t care if you’ve been in the business ten years or twenty-five years or thirty years, you’re learning something that you can pass on to someone else.  In the beginning, many women were accused of not helping other women by sharing what they knew. So I think women in some ways have a bigger responsibility even than might otherwise be the case. So I’ve always tried to pass that along whenever I give a speech to a group of young people, students, my own employees, whomever it might be, that they have a responsibility to give back, not tomorrow, not next year, but today. So you work with somebody to help someone.

I didn’t actually realize how well that was working until I actually retired and I sent out my notice; I sent out letters and so forth and I still have saved every one of the emails I got back. I got back hundreds of emails. They were mostly congratulations, but what sort of came through to me which was very rewarding was how much you helped me; how much I learned from you; I’m taking those lessons now and passing them along; whatever it might be; but with that idea of giving back. For me if I had to look back and see what was the proudest thing that I ever did, my best achievement, I feel that was it, which is why the teaching for me is really going to be a lot of fun. I also think that you get back what you put in. When you put that kind of effort into giving back, you’re going to get back just as much. You’re going to learn new things. You’re going to get back the real sense of satisfaction, but I also think it keeps your mind active and you just constantly have that process of learning and developing, which you have to keep until the end.